Silvia Federici: Women, Witch-Hunting and Enclosures in Africa Today | Witch Hunt | Witchcraft

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It is by now well documented that the past three decades have seen thousands of mostly African and Indian women accused of being witches and killed or maimed or chased out of their communities. Since their inception, these attacks have been expanding to new regions and new groups, also targeting children and elderly men. Long reported only by journalists and a handful of anthropologists, witchcraft killings have lately come to the attention of human rights organizations and the United Nations. But the driving forces behind them and their implications, especially for women, are only superficially analyzed. It is clear, moreover, that there is hardly a commitment, at a local or global level, to investigate their causes and find remedies against them, although it is recognized that improving the economic status of women and the elderly, for example through the introduction of pension schemes, would have a positive effect.
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  F ORSCHUNG / R  ESEARCH Silvia Federici  Women, Witch-Hunting and Enclosures inAfrica Today It is by now well documented that the past three decades have seenthousands of mostly African and Indian women accused of beingwitches and killed or maimed or chased out of their communities.Since their inception, these attacks have been expanding to new re-gions and new groups, also targeting children and elderly men.Long reported only by journalists and a handful of anthropologists,witchcraft killings have lately come to the attention of humanrights organizations and the United Nations. 1 But the driving for-ces behind them and their implications, especially for women, areonly superficially analyzed. It is clear, moreover, that there is hardly acommitment, at a local or global level, to investigate their causes andfind remedies against them, although it is recognized that improvingthe economic status of women and the elderly, for example throughthe introduction of pension schemes, would have a positive effect. 2  1 In September 2009, during the 12th session of the UN Council on HumanRights, held in Geneva, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), theworld union of humanist organizations and a number of NGOs and representativesfrom the countries affected presented a report detailing the worldwide spread of witch-hunting. Later, the UN published with the IHEU a joint statement on thesubject. See [www.iheu.org/witchcraft-united-nations] (accessed 15 March 2010). 2 Evidence for this comes from South Africa, where a universal pension schemewas adopted that “transformed [the elderly] from a net household liability into an‘asset’”, leading to a decrease in the number of witchcraft accusations against them.See PDES, Toils and Troubles: Accusations of Witchcraft as a Protection Issue, Witchcraft Displacement and Human Rights Network, 8 July 2009, [maheba.word-press.com/2009/07/08/toil-and-trouble-accusations] (accessed 15 March 2010). Seealso Amanda Heslop / Mark Gorman, Chronic Poverty and Older People in the De-veloping World, Chronic Poverty Research Center (CPRC) Working Paper Nr. 10,[http://www.chronicpoverty.org/uploads/publication_files/WP10_Heslop_Gor 10 Sozial.Geschichte Online 3 (2010), S. 10–27 (http://www.stiftung-sozialgeschichte.de)   Women, Witch-Hunting and Enclosures in Africa Today Social movements have generally not addressed this subject, plaus-ibly for fear of contributing to the hostile ideological campaign towhich Africans and other colonized populations are subjected inthe international press. The criticism directed at US feminists fortheir denunciation of female genital mutilation during the 1980smay also have been a consideration. I myself have wonderedwhether my concern with this subject might not be viewed as anundue interference in matters that can be manipulated to justifyimperial agendas. I have however set aside this preoccupation giventhat my objective is precisely to highlight the role played in thesewitch-hunts by the neo-liberal economic policies which the inter-national financial institutions (the World Bank and the Internation-al Monetary Fund above all) have imposed on the countries of theglobal South during the 1980s and 1990s. I argue, in fact, that thecurrent persecution of ‘witches’ is rooted in the intense social crisisthat economic liberalization has produced in much of the world, tothe extent that it has stripped entire populations of their means of subsistence, torn communities apart, deepened economic inequalit-ies and forced people to compete for diminishing resources. Thereis evidence, for instance, that many witch-hunts are linked to thebreakdown of communal land ownership patterns and the landprivatization drives that neo-liberal economists have prescribed.Such land privatization drives see local authorities, businessmenand landowners cooperate in grabbing land and striking at thoseless capable of defending themselves or resisting expropriation.To make these points is not to underestimate or exonerate thedeep-seated misogyny and patriarchalism that these attacks on wo-men reveal. It means, however, to recognize that the governmentsand international financial institutions that have promoted this new round of ‘primitive accumulation’ bear a responsibility for thesekillings. Such recognition constitutes a necessary step, in my view, man.pdf] (accessed 15 March 2010], p. 12, 20. Heslop and Gorman point out thatthe pensions received by elderly persons in South Africa are shared with otherhousehold members, who would otherwise view their elderly as ‘passive recipients.’ Sozial.Geschichte Online 3 (2010) 11  Silvia Federici both towards identifying the causes of this phenomenon and to-wards undermining the assumption that witch-hunting is no morethan a legacy of African or Indian traditions. 1.Why Speak of Witch-Hunts? In contrast with the persecution of so-called witches that tookplace in Europe from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and which wasprimarily instigated by clerical and state authorities, the present at-tacks would seem to come from below, as a response to local rival-ries, familial jealousies or fears generated by sudden, inexplicabledeaths. But the scale of the persecutions, their geographical exten-sion across cultural and religious boundaries, the similarities of form and context and the fact that the same social groups are vic-timized suggest broad underlying causalities and even unarticulatedschemes whose nature I will try to identify.It is worth noting, in this context, that state-led persecution of witches is not unheard of. A campaign against witches and ‘blackmagicians’ has been conducted for some years by Saudi Arabia’s re-ligious police, leading to several arrests and death sentences, in-cluding that of a woman accused of having caused impotence in aman. 3 In March 2009, hundreds of people in Gambia were arrestedby members of the presidential guard and driven to camps wherethey were forced to drink poisonous beverages; the detainees werecharged with witchcraft. 4  In Malaysia, Muslim clerics are calling foranti-witchcraft laws, arguing that robbers use magic spells. More-over, anthropologists have noted a new tendency among Africanpoliticians to use magical claims to project political power eversince the early 1990s. 5  These examples suggest a transformation in 3 Saudi Arabia: Kingdom Steps Up Hunt for ‘Witches’ and ‘Black Magicians’, in:Los Angeles Times, 26 November 2009. 4 Hundreds Kidnapped, Poisoned in Gambian Witch Hunts Amnesty, ABC, 19March 2009. 5 Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Post-colonial Africa, Charlottesville 1997; Jean-François Bayart et al., The Criminaliza- 12   Women, Witch-Hunting and Enclosures in Africa Today the language and tools of power, of which the revamping of reli-gion as a means of political legitimation is clearly a part. But theystill belong to a different category than the broad campaignsagainst ‘witches’ that have developed in the last three decades, andwhich appear as a veritable war against women.Exact figures are lacking, for many killings are not reported. Butit is generally agreed that the number of people, mostly elderly wo-men, who have been murdered on charges of witchcraft during thelast three decades is in the tens of thousands in Africa alone. Inparts of the continent (Northern Ghana, South Africa), there arenow ‘witch refugee camps’ where women threatened with death, orexpelled by their communities, live in exile, supported by local gov-ernments or NGOs. 6 According to a UN report, 2,500 killingswere recorded in India between 1987 and 2003, but it is agreed thatthe actual figure is much higher and that many more women weretortured, maimed, traumatized for life. Hundreds of attacks on‘witches’ have also been reported in Nepal, Papua New Guinea,more recently East Timor, and in parts of South America.As mentioned, the authorities generally fail to punish or evenpursue the witch-hunters, though these often act openly and in thepresence of bystanders. In Africa, many attacks on ‘witches’ arecarried out at night, by groups of vigilantes usually composed of young men and acting under cover of darkness. But witch-huntsare also very public events, perpetrated in full daylight. A recent at-tack on five people accused of being witches in the Kisii region of Kenya was video-recorded and can be seen on YouTube. 7  In somecases, witch-finders have gone from village to village, invited bylocal chiefs, submitting everyone to frightening interrogations and tion of the State in Africa, Bloomington 1999. 6 Alison Berg, Witches in Exile, VHS and DVD, 79 minutes, USA and Ghana2005 (available at: [www.newsreel.org Elom Dovlo, Witchcraft in ContemporaryGhana, in: Gerrie Ter Haar (ed.), Imagining Evil: Witchcraft Beliefs and Accusationsin Contemporary Africa, Trenton 2007, pp. 67–112: pp. 72–75. 7 Kenyan Elders Killed in Witch-Hunt, [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhg7I7ZZPYE] (accessed 15 March 2010). Sozial.Geschichte Online 3 (2010) 13
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